By Ken Eisner
No one's a boy wonder forever. For Kenny Wayne
Shepherd, though, growing up has had its advantages. Now 33,
he can hold his own with venerable ax wielders without
having to blast anyone off the stage. His seriously deep-fried
documentary, 10 Days Out: Blues From the Backroads,
followed the guitar-slinger’s ardent 2007 search through the
South for living remnants of old traditions. The same production
team returned for the new Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band
album, Live! In Chicago, which is his first for Roadrunner
Records. A happy, almost accidental product of intensive touring
with some players from back in the Days, plus his regulars
and more, the 75-minute set finds him playing host to guitar
greats such as Hubert Sumlin, early mentor Bryan Lee, and
fellow Louisianan Buddy Flett. The fair-haired former youngster
pays sincere respect, but his piercing Stratocaster tone
has never sounded more commanding.
To what extent is this record an outgrowth of
your previous effort?
My last project put me back in touch
with my roots. These were the people
who inspired me to play in the first place,
and they’re part of a very tight-knit community.
B.B. King is like an adopted father
to me. Buddy Guy, too, and of course
Hubert Sumlin. It’s still amazing to me
that I have personal relationships with
my heroes, and B.B. in particular is quick
to give me advice on how to conduct
myself, both as a musician and a person.
This began as a tour in support of the
documentary, but the songs aren’t even
what we worked on for 10 Days Out. By
the time the tour got to Chicago, we
were pretty comfortable with each other,
and with the material we had picked for
the shows. We had [Muddy Waters piano
stalwart] Pinetop Perkins with us for
quite a few dates, just not in Chicago.
The CD wasn’t even planned. At a
certain point, I thought, “I better get this
down, just for myself, so that 30 years
from now I can pull it out and say, ‘Hey,
that was me playing with those guys!’” It’s like 50 percent Kenny Wayne Shepherd
songs mixed with older blues tunes we hadn’t
done before. “Deja Voodoo” introduced me
to a lot of people, and “Blue on Black” is still
the biggest song of my career, to date, so
those had to be there. This set list was in
the same sequence as the show, although
we did more songs in between some of them.
The easygoing shuffle of Jimmy Reed and Slim
Harpo hits a different beat for you.
Yes, but my roots go deeper into this stuff
than people know, because I haven’t recorded
it before. With some of our guests, I knew
I had to get some key things in there, like
having Hubert do “Rocking Daddy.” That’s
a signature riff everybody knows. He also sings
“Feed Me,” a swampy thing that he wrote.
And having [Muddy drummer] Willie “Big
Eyes” Smith sing Jimmy Reed and play this
slow, almost behind-the-beat blues—well, I
feel it’s just what he would have chosen.
How’d you get such a huge sound out of a live
Jerry Harrison and I co-produced this
project together, but the guy who really made
it sound the way it’s supposed to sound is Eric
Thorngren, our engineer. We got to Milwaukee
when we decided to start recording, and
Jerry said, “I know a guy who has a computer
rig that could handle this, but it’s going to be pretty crude. We’ll take a snake directly from
the live feed and record all the microphone
signals individually direct to a hard drive.”
For Milwaukee, the feed wasn’t set up
right, and in Chicago, we got these really
raw audio files, but they were good. Fortunately,
it was the better of the two shows,
and Eric just worked his magic in the mix.
How aware were you that the performance was
I really try to forget about that. Anyway,
I was so sick that night, with some kind of
24-hour flu or something, and it was the only
time in my career that I almost didn’t go on.
We cancelled the meet-and-greet and everything
else but the show. I just got out there
with the fans and the adrenaline took over.
Nothing on the disc was fixed or doctored
in any way. It helped that everything
sounded great on stage. For my rig that
evening, I was using two ’64 Fender Vibroverb
reissues, run in stereo. On my board,
I had a Vox V848 Clyde McCoy wah, an Analog
Man King of Tone overdrive—I’ll hit both
the buttons on that and a hand-wired Ibanez
TS808 to get a Hendrix thing going on
“Voodoo Chile.” I also have the Analog Man
Bi-Chorus and AR20DL analog delay pedals,
a Chicago Iron Tycobrahe Octavia SE reissue,
and a Dunlop Uni-Vibe reissue. That’s the
pulsating sound you’re hearing on “Blue on
Black,” not tremolo, which I never use.
We just recorded on the fly, and there was no need for fine-tuning. I was changing
guitars throughout the evening—various
models of my signature Stratocaster, set up
for different tunings. And every time I play
“Voodoo Chile,” which will be on the premium
version of this album, I use my limited
edition Monterey Pop Strat that the Fender
Custom Shop made for me.
Is that the multicolored one with the reverse
Yeah, but I had the headstock put on later.
It’s so funny, because whenever I play that
guitar, guys come up to me after the show
and say, “I didn’t know you could play lefthanded,
You started out hot, before the major labels
started losing their mojo. How is this new indie
environment for you?
I definitely benefited from radio play and
label support back when you could still sell a
million records. Everybody wants to post good
numbers, of course, but I’ve always been more
interested in making sure the fans come out
to the shows. If we’re filling seats, we’re doing
something right. In the long run, I’ve built my
career on being a solid live act, and these days,
people are really surprised when the band is
better in person. Of course, there’s also the
beauty of the genre I’m in. Blues fans stay with
you through thick and thin. They want you to
grow as an artist, and they cheer you on.
Currently, we’re working on a new studio
album set to come out in February or
March, and my approach is not about how
many notes you play, but which notes you
play. By now, people know I can burn if I
want to burn—but I want to know which
note will penetrate the most? Which note
or simple group of notes will just grab you
by the heartstrings and yank you out of your
chair? I guess it has something to do with
maturity, or at least experience. When you’re
young, you just want to show everybody
everything you can do, but now I’m not trying
to prove myself to anybody.
In what other ways has your life changed since
the early days?
Well, I’m a married man with children
now. My wife [clothes designer Hannah
Gibson] is such an amazing person, and a
great artist in her own right. The single
best decision of my life was marrying her
and starting a family. I certainly have a different
set of priorities now than when I put
out my first record, at 17. In 2013, I’ll have
been a recording-and-touring artist for 20
years, and I feel incredibly lucky to have
had this great a ride so far. The best part
is that it’s only beginning!
What about singing? You seem to have dropped
that for now.
Well, I sang most of the songs on my
fourth album, which turned out to be more
of a rock record—another example of my
fans sticking with me through all my youthful
experiments—with shades of blues here
and there. Those songs were super-personal
for me. Now I’m happy to let Noah Hunt do
most of the singing—he’s been in my band
15 years now—and I like singing harmonies
with him. My voice lends itself to that kind
of hard-rock sound, I guess. But honestly,
my dream is to sing like a 50-year-old black
man. Hey, it took Clapton a long time to step
up in that department.